A Killer Pursuit
Monday, August 11, 2008
By Karin Slaughter
Delacorte. 388 pp. $25
Karin Slaughter's "Fractured" is a superior crime novel because Slaughter writes well on several levels. It's first and foremost a police procedural that describes in impressive detail efforts to find the person or persons who killed one Atlanta teenager and kidnapped another. The investigators are tormented by thoughts of the horrors that rich, attractive, 17-year-old Emma Campano may be suffering as the hours pass. But more than most crime novelists, Slaughter is also interested in relationships, and she describes many complex ones among her characters. Finally, Slaughter, who has lived in Atlanta for a number of years, gives a sense of that city's people, mood and history. All this adds up to a crime novel that is denser, more challenging and ultimately more rewarding than most.
After a morning of tennis, Abigail Campano returns to her mansion in Atlanta's exclusive Ansley Park neighborhood to find a man with a knife standing over a bloody body that she takes to be her daughter, Emma. A struggle ensues, and the furious mother kills the intruder. Only after police arrive do terrible truths become clear. First, the dead girl isn't Emma but her friend Kayla, beaten beyond recognition. Emma, blood patterns make clear, has been carried away. Moreover, the dead boy wasn't the killer: He was a friend of one of the girls, and his death at the mother's hands was a tragic mistake. From the first, this is not a simple case.
Because Emma has been kidnapped, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation takes over from the rival Atlanta Police Department. This makes Will Trent of the GBI, who has appeared in one of Slaughter's previous novels, the lead investigator, with Atlanta police detective Faith Mitchell assigned to work with him. Soon complicated relationships emerge. Trent's investigation into corruption in the police department forced the retirement of Faith's mother, and the younger woman despises him, at least at the outset. Trent and the missing girl's father, Paul Campano, grew up hating one another in an Atlanta orphanage -- and not much has changed in their middle age. Campano, thanks to his marriage to heiress Abigail, has advanced from car salesman to millionaire auto dealer. His wife despises him for his many affairs, but shared anguish over their missing child draws them back together. We learn, too, that Trent, a first-rate detective, has a secret: Thanks to a combination of dyslexia and poor schooling, he's illiterate but clever enough to hide his weakness from almost everyone.
The search for Emma comes to focus on the exclusive private school she attended and on Georgia Tech, where the dead boy was a student. Along the way, Slaughter gives us snatches of Southern vernacular: One detective could "pretty much talk the fleas off a dog." We feel the Atlanta heat: "It was like rolling yourself in honey and then walking into a kiln." We visit Emma's school and meet teachers with dark secrets in their past. We learn that after the Civil War, when the city's best families could no longer send their children to Boston or London to be educated, "recently impoverished debutantes realized that they actually had marketable skills and started opening up private schools along Ponce de Leon Avenue." Slaughter is one of the most tough-minded writers around when it comes to the ugly realities of crime, but she also has a nice eye for details of women's lives.
The two key questions looming over the novel -- who kidnapped Emma, and is she still alive? -- must not be answered here, but it is not too much to say that Slaughter's villains include a man who uses a position of authority to prey on vulnerable young women. There are many such men, she tells us, and they do terrible harm not only to the women they kill but also to those they leave scarred for life. And to their families as well; nothing in the novel is stronger than the portrait of the missing girl's anguished parents.
In 2001, I reviewed Slaughter's first novel, "Blindsighted," which concerned a rapist and murderer who was terrorizing women in a Georgia town. It was a violent book, but the violence was never gratuitous or used, as it sometimes is, to provide cheap thrills. Rather, Slaughter was clearly furious about rape, murder and other outrages against women. She does much the same in "Fractured," except she's more confident now and the novel is richer and more ambitious. Still in her 30s, Slaughter continues to be angry, fiercely focused and one of the most talented young crime novelists.